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Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner in the prime minister’s race, wants to make state universities start classes in September instead of April and demand six months of volunteer work as a prerequisite for enrollment, sources close to him said Wednesday.

Abe’s plan is apparently aimed at coordinating enrollment times with North American and European countries to make it easier for students at state and municipal universities to study abroad, while urging Japanese youth to get more involved in social activities.

But critics are skeptical because extensive efforts would have to be made to avoid disrupting society, which is deeply entrenched in the practice of starting the school and fiscal years in April. There is also criticism that forcing students to do social work may be unconstitutional.

In addition to raising havoc with the entrance exam and job-hunting seasons, legislation would be needed to force the switch to September enrollment. When to start classes is currently decided separately by each university.

Abe, widely considered the favorite to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in late September, plans to set up an advisory panel on education reform as early as October. He plans to set a basic reform schedule within six months, the sources said.

In 2000, a similar advisory panel to then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori proposed that all students from elementary through high school be forced to live together for two weeks to a month and engage in social services. It also proposed that all 18-year-olds be required to do social work for a year.

But the proposal was shot down by critics who reminded the public that the act of making volunteerism compulsory strongly resembles conscription. Memories of schoolchildren being forced into labor during the war still linger.

Mori’s advisory panel also proposed starting university classes in September, which some schools adopted to help students study overseas, where it is more common to start the school year in fall.

But the trend never caught on because it was too difficult for universities to coordinate with the spring start of the academic and job-hunting seasons.

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